By the late 1870s the pace of immigration to America,
curtailed during the Civil War era, had begun to accelerate again.
Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, as well
flocked to the United States,
and Chicago became one of their
favorite destinations. The American economy had begun to show signs of
revival, and the city's meatpacking establishments, rail yards and
factories offered plentiful jobs to unskilled laborers.
The end of the 1870s' depressed economic conditions allowed
labor unions to gain strength again and become a major force in Chicago
politics. In the wake of the 1877 strikes socialists, organized as the
Workingmen's Party of the United States
–first found electoral success in Chicago.
Like the mainstream American political parties, the socialist organization
provided its members with a full slate of social and cultural activities,
including parades, picnics, and rallies. The Workingmen's Party proved
especially popular among German and Scandinavian immigrants and, flush with
success, changed its name to the Socialist Labor Party in 1878.
But the socialists quickly faded into factional squabbling
as the city's Democratic Party reorganized itself and sent the popular
Carter Harrison to the mayor's chair in 1879. Harrison
was a wealthy city businessman who proved friendly to labor. Many
socialists supported Harrison because he defended
their rights to assembly and free speech. He defused the volatile
temperance issue by failing to enforce Sunday laws and other curbs on
alcohol consumption. The Harrison administration
also decentralized control of the city's police department; and in many
strikes, officers tacitly (and even openly) supported their neighbors'
The rise of the Knights of Labor, a national organization
welcoming all workers, also reshaped labor politics in the city. The
Knights were a secret organization founded 1869 in Philadelphia. They had
spread through Pennsylvania coal fields during the 1870s, largely on their
appeal as an inclusive union not restricted to the members of particular
The Knights first emerged in Chicago in 1877 when the city's
craftsmen and unions had largely disappeared during unskilled workers'
violent clashes with soldiers and police. The Knights' vision of an
inclusive union stood in sharp contrast, and offered the large numbers of
unskilled laborers required by industrial economy with an organization of
their own. Bringing workers from diverse industries together, Knights of
Labor organizers encouraged them to think of themselves as members of a
single working class.
In Chicago the Knights led workers to take up nonviolent
boycotts as a means to achieve their goals in public life. The boycott had
begun in Ireland, and the Knights' Irish-American leaders adapted it to
American conditions. In 1881 labor leaders organized a boycott of a west
side streetcar line after its leaders rejected workers' request for a pay
increase. The public, fed up with the streetcar line's inefficient service,
supported the strikers and forced the company to grant the workers'
The Knights of Labor stepped into the vacuum caused by the
decline of the Socialist Labor Party, using the boycott to bring large
community support to striking workers. These methods promised workers a way
to compel their employers to negotiate without violence, bloodshed, or wide
public condemnation. Like the socialists, the Knights provided workers with
social and cultural activities, and also maintained a city labor bureau
matching workers to available jobs.
A flood of new members strained the Knights' internal
organization and leadership, and compromised their effectiveness, however.
As the new members agitated for higher wages, the Knights often failed to
deliver their promised benefits. Nonetheless, by 1882, Chicago
employers had identified the Knights as a formidable adversary and began a
stiff opposition to the new boycotts. When local tanners went out on an
ill-advised strike, they compromised the Knights' devotion to organization
and arbitration over work stoppages. When they gave in to united employers,
the tanners ushered in non-union shops where union men had once worked. 2
While Chicago labor unions flourished under the protection
of a sympathetic city administration, downstate workers faced more
difficult conditions. Coal mining remained bitterly hard, dangerous work.
In 1883 state militia broke a miners' strike in Collinsville. Not content
to merely put down the work stoppage, the soldiers pursued fleeing strikers
across the county line, arresting twenty and killing one.
In 1879 Frances Willard of Evanston became the president of
the National Women's Christian Temperance Union. She often worked for the
organization without pay, relying upon money earned as a lecturer to support
herself. The issue of prohibition, or banning the sale and consumption of
alcoholic beverages, often divided native-born reformers from immigrant
groups. In the 1880s it spilled beyond the realm of voluntary associations
and individuals' moral reform, and into electoral politics. In 1882
moralist reformers in Illinois nominated the first of four Prohibition
Party slates for state offices. They found no success, but the new
organizations provided women with new roles in electoral politics. 3
In the 1880s new women's clubs organized among the wives of
the prosperous middle class. Many devoted themselves to the causes of
social reform and charity. Many female reformers found that, while they
could not vote, their status as wives and mothers provided them with
political capital valuable in the fight to provide better conditions for
women and children. In Illinois, the Chicago Woman's Club became a leader
in this movement, devoting special attention to the cause of preventing
youthful offenders from becoming lifetime criminals. Clubwomen began to
demand, and receive, seats on the boards governing important state and
private institutions for children and families. Many also turned to the
task of converting immigrant families to Protestantism and middle-class
American ideals of family life.4
In 1880 downstate Illinois became the home of the first
black priest in America when Augustine Tolton was ordained in Rome. The
child of Missouri slaves, Tolton began his career by serving an all-black
parish in Quincy, but faced powerful opposition from whites there and moved
on to a Chicago parish. 5
In 1881 the entrepreneur Charles T. Yerkes left Philadelphia
for Chicago. Sensing a business opportunity, he turned his attention to
integrating Chicago's many streetcar companies into a single system. Using
all manner of political techniques, including bribery and blackmail, Yerkes
received favorable franchises from the city government and built a
transportation empire in the final decades of the nineteenth century.
Yerkes' transportation empire was just a part of the new
city that emerged from the ruins of the Chicago fire. Architects made the
city the site of new innovations in design and construction. In 1882 the
Montauk building, the nation's first skyscraper at ten stories, rose in
Chicago. The new structures presented a considerable challenge in Chicago's
marshy terrain. In response, innovative architects used skeletons of iron
beams to support the weight created by their great height. These frames sat
upon concrete piers sunk to a bedrock base, known as "Chicago
Louis Sullivan became the leader of the new Chicago School
of Architects. His career culminated with the design of two Chicago
landmarks, the celebrated Auditorium Theater (completed 1889) and the
Chicago Stock Exchange Building (completed 1893). In addition, Sullivan
designed significant structures in St. Louis and Buffalo. Despite his
dictum that "form follows function," Sullivan in fact integrated
delicate ornamentation into his larger designs and inspired several
generations of architects, including his protégé Frank Lloyd Wright.6
Schneirov, Richard. Labor and Urban Politics: Class Struggle and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864-97. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
2. See Schneirov.
3. Bordin, Ruth B. A. Frances Willard: A Biography. Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 1986
4. Flanagan, Maureen. Seeing With Their Hearts: Chicago Women and the Vision of the Good City, 1871-1933. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, c2002
5. For more on Tolton, see http://www.quincy.edu/information/history/tolton.html.
6. Twombly, Robert. Louis Sullivan: His Life and Work. New York: Viking, 1986.